The chess pieces consist of elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales’ teeth in the forms of seated kings and queens, mitred bishops, knights on their mounts, standing warders and pawns in the shape of obelisks.
They were found in the vicinity of Uig on the Isle of Lewis in mysterious circumstances. Various stories have evolved to explain why they were concealed there, and how they were discovered. All that is certain is that they were found some time before 11 April 1831, when they were exhibited in Edinburgh at the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland. The precise findspot seems to have been a sand dune where they may have been placed in a small, drystone chamber.
Who owned the chess pieces? Why were they hidden? While there are no firm answers to these questions, it is possible that they belonged to a merchant travelling from Norway to Ireland. This seems likely since there are constituent pieces – though with some elements missing – for four distinct sets. Their general condition is excellent and they do not seem to have been used much, if at all.
By the end of the eleventh century, chess was a very popular game among the aristocracy throughout Europe. The Lewis chess pieces form the largest single surviving group of objects from the period that were made purely for recreational purposes. The question of precisely where they were made is a difficult one to resolve.
When Sir Frederic Madden first published the finds in 1832, he considered them to be Icelandic in origin. This argument has been repeated recently by Icelandic commentators on the subject. Other authorities have thought them to be Irish, Scottish or English. Each of these attributions is possible.
What is known with certainty is that the chessmen are vigorously northern in their character and are strongly influenced by Norse culture. This is most evident in the figures of the warders or rooks which take the form of Berserkers, fierce mythical warriors drawn directly from the Sagas. The historic political, economic and cultural links between the Outer Hebrides and Norway and its dominance of the Norse world might suggest that Norway is the most likely place to have produced these high status, luxury commodities.
A board large enough to hold all the pieces arranged for a game played to modern rules would have measured 82 cm across. Records state that when found, some of the Lewis chessmen were stained red. Consequently the chessboard may have been red and white, as opposed to the modern convention of black and white.
Of the 93 pieces known to us today, 11 pieces are in Edinburgh at the National Museum of Scotland, and 82 are in the British Museum.
Sources: the British Museum home page.